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Ikiru: The son

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    Ugetsu

    Another quite minor question here (I find Ikiru to be so overwhelmingly perfect as a movie, but also so self explanatory, that I find it defies any attempt at an overarching question or comment) – its about Mitsuo, Watanabe’s son.

    The film of course, while dealing with the last few months of Watanabes life, gives an impressive overview of all of his life, from the death of his wife. But there is one part that (to me) is missing – why did Mitsuo turn so cold towards his father? Earlier on, we see hints that Watanabe is both a slightly absent father figure (not staying with his son during the operation), and also is perhaps slightly disappointed in him (the baseball game). But when Mitsuo leaves for war, we see clearly in his face a young man who has no desire for war or adventure or to leave home and we see a clear and obvious love and connection between them as they look at each other as the train brings him away. Yet when we see him next, its the rather cold Mitsuo who doesn’t seem to have any particular love or respect for his father.

    What is implied here? Is it just considered natural that as he grew older, he realised what a dull character his father is (with the train as the metaphor for separation)? Is it implied that the war hardened him, or that his selfish wife drove a wedge between them?

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    Vili Maunula

    An excellent question, Ugetsu, why indeed, the relationship between Watanabe and his son?

    Always the devil’s advocate, the first thing I would like to ask is whether the relationship actually is as poor as the film implies on the surface.

    After all, we see only a very brief glimpse of the present adult relationship between Watanabe and his son, and the part that we see is throughout influenced by the father overhearing his son talking behind his back, an event that is later negatively reinforced by the son assuming that his father has taken on a young mistress.

    Yet, even consider this, Mitsuo at the wake seems adamant that he would have known about his father’s cancer had the father been suffering from it. And he would also be correct in that assumption, had it not been for that unfortunate incident of Mitsuo, I think half jokingly, talking his father down and the father overhearing this. Or, at least to me, it would seem that the reason why the father was in his son’s apartment after the diagnosis is that he wanted to break the news about his cancer. Unfortunately, the opportunity didn’t present itself.

    I would therefore actually suggest that the relationship between the two is better than the surface of the film (and most critics) would let us believe. We should also remember that, at least in my experience, the father-son relationship is in some ways more formal in Japan than it is in the west — especially when both individuals have reached adulthood. I could be wrong here though, but if I am not then perhaps some of the coldness we may perceive between the two is just the cultural difference.

    Having said that, the relationship clearly isn’t the best ever, either. Based on the flashbacks, it seems to me that Watanabe tries to do what is best for his son (this being why he doesn’t want to remarry), but at the same time he is not really able to bring in the emotional side of parenting, as is indicated by him not having taken a day off from work to be with Mitsuo during his operation, or by his reaction to the baseball scene (this being why he perhaps should have remarried).

    Also, it may be just me but I find Watanabe quite unlikeable. That is to say, he is an interesting case and I sympathise with him, but he certainly is not someone I would deeply care about as a person or who I would consider an excellent character model. None of the three Watanabes that we see — the pre-rebirth mummy, the night life drunkard, or the reborn stubborn single-minded man on a mission — is someone I would consider a person I would like to be acquainted with. And I don’t really see that any of them would make a good father, either.

    Considering his emotional distance and his mummy-like appearance, I would therefore rather point the finger at the father rather than the son when it comes to finding a reason for the less-than-perfect relationship.

    As a final note, it is perhaps interesting to consider this family relationship in relation to other families in Kurosawa’s movies. Kurosawa has been criticised for what is perceived as an almost total lack of family bonds in his films. While I think that the criticism itself is odd, and largely due to educated viewers for some reason insisting on comparing Kurosawa’s work to that of Ozu and Mizoguchi, there is a kernel of truth in the accusation, namely that families are not at the very centre of Kurosawa’s focus.

    This is, contrary to what some may suggest, not to say that Kurosawa doesn’t deal with families. Ikiru is one example of a family unit quite at the centre of the story, and our last month’s film Red Beard presents us a number of other similar examples. Further instances that we see are in Record of a Living Being and Ran, and perhaps we could also consider at least High and Low, The Bad Sleep Well, Dodesukaden and Rhapsody in August.

    Interestingly, none of these family units are very functional. To be honest, I cannot really think of a family unit in a Kurosawa film that would work all that well (can you?). This is unlike many of the master-student relationships, or more common friendships, which are often less complicated. In a sense, Kurosawa constantly problematises families, while promoting individual responsibility.

    As a final note to the final note, it is interesting that this is a little bit different in the two Kurosawa scripts that were filmed after his death. I would say that both After the Rain and The Sea is Watching perhaps portray this type of relationships somewhat more warmly.

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    Vili Maunula

    Coming to think of it though, why is Watanabe’s newly found purpose directed at helping total strangers, and not his own family?

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    Ugetsu

    Coming to think of it though, why is Watanabe’s newly found purpose directed at helping total strangers, and not his own family?

    Good point, he could have just left his son all his money! But then again, the girl did make a rather excellent point when she said that Mitsuo never asked Watanabe to make all those sacrifices.

    I think you are right, vili, when you suggest that the relationship isn’t as bad as we may think at first sight. There are suggestions that Mitsuo is a bit henpecked, he has put his wife first and so shut an already lonely man even further from his life and his family. But as Ozu repeatedly points out in most of his movies, such a transition is a natural and sad part of growing older. Now thinking of it, isn’t there some thematic similarities with Tokyo Story? The elderly person finding that their children are… slightly disappointing, that the natural transition of the generations means that the older generation becomes redundant… Toyo (the girl) maybe has the same role as Hara has in Tokyo Story. Well, maybe thats pushing it too far.

    It is true though that happy families are a rarity in Kurosawa movies. I can’t think of any either. From what we know of his private life, its probably a reflection of Kurosawa’s own experiences.

    I would disagree with you a little about Watanabe not being intended to be a sympathetic character. Surely showing his deep sadness at his wife’s shrine was meant for us to realise there is a sensitive man behind the mummy like bureaucrat? I always find the scene where he is alone in his bedroom with his certificates of commendation to be deeply moving.

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    Vili Maunula

    Coming to think of it though, why is Watanabe’s newly found purpose directed at helping total strangers, and not his own family?

    Good point, he could have just left his son all his money! But then again, the girl did make a rather excellent point when she said that Mitsuo never asked Watanabe to make all those sacrifices.

    I wasn’t actually so much thinking about the financial aspect of it, but rather that he might have considered spending more time with his son in his last days, to heal the bond between them, if it needed healing.

    Then again, I don’t actually know why I should consider this a better option than helping total strangers. In what way are we more responsible for our (adult) relatives than any other human beings? Why should family ties matter? (Just thinking aloud here…)

    I think the comparison to Ozu and Tokyo Story is quite appropriate, and it is interesting that only a year separates the two films. Actually, in my latest patch of notes for Ikiru I have scribbled down “lots of ‘tatami-level’ shots –> Ozu?”. It perhaps says something about the lack of time that I have these day that I cannot really comment on this further, whether to validate or invalidate my own question. I really need to find the time to watch Ikiru once more before the end of the month to at least try to do this film some justice!

    I would disagree with you a little about Watanabe not being intended to be a sympathetic character. Surely showing his deep sadness at his wife’s shrine was meant for us to realise there is a sensitive man behind the mummy like bureaucrat? I always find the scene where he is alone in his bedroom with his certificates of commendation to be deeply moving.

    Perhaps I expressed myself a little poorly here. I do feel sympathy for Watanabe, and the film would probably fall apart if we didn’t, yet I don’t really like him as an individual. Does this make sense?

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    Ugetsu

    Then again, I don’t actually know why I should consider this a better option than helping total strangers. In what way are we more responsible for our (adult) relatives than any other human beings? Why should family ties matter? (Just thinking aloud here…)

    Good point – there really is no reason why family ties should matter. One reason I love that scene (I’ve found myself quoting that scene lots of times when people complain about their kids or their parents) is that it goes directly to the heart of intergenerational relationships. The obligations we have are only in our minds, we never asked to be born, we didn’t chose our families.

    Perhaps I expressed myself a little poorly here. I do feel sympathy for Watanabe, and the film would probably fall apart if we didn’t, yet I don’t really like him as an individual. Does this make sense?

    Absolutely. He wouldn’t exactly be a barrel of laughs on a night out.

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